Toward the New Radical…These Days

In the latest issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Matvei Yankelevich – poet, translator, and editor at Brooklyn’s Ugly Duckling Presse – published an Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff, preeminent scholar-theorist of “avant-garde” literature, visual art, and media culture. In the letter, Matvei proposed an alternative outlook on the state of American poetry and on making it new, which Marjorie had earlier lamented in The Boston Review.

The articles themselves are lengthy and dense, with little to warrant attention from non-academics. Which is too bad. Because anyone who reads and cares about the progress of American poetry and contemporary literature in general should hear out this debate. Or if you’re already on a side, know what it is you stand for.

The exchange isn’t particularly special, though it has stirred some discussion already, and it’s a good place to start (or start again).

I have the arguments simplified here for dummies, for a common ground to start a dialogue, and for my own sanity. Footnotes at bottom. More on literary leftism later.


Variables. n = 2 3
Big idea. Defends “difficult” Conceptual* poetry

Conceptual > MFA-style poetry

Suggests “gray area” as a 3rd alternative
Points. Mocks Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry as boring, homogenous, catering to the masses

Looks to conceptual poetry as a place to reinvent lyric poetry

Mocks some more about the [I’m paraphrasing] rise of minority literature and “diversity” (Understood, but your tone is nasty, Marj.)

Reminds Marjorie it’s not that simple or B&W
Reminds Majorie, gently, she is living in the past, conceptualism has long been canonic, accepted and preached, far-out Charles Bernstein has taught MFA classes. (Sorry Marj, but conceptualism ain’t as pure as you thought it.)
Drops a thousand names of crazy-hip, “out there” poets and movements, most friends or personal acquaintances made early in their careers
My verdict. Marj–

I commend your fighting spirit. It’s not easy to defend the avant-garde in today’s anti-intellectual climate of automatic backlash, where having knowledge of anything outside of pop culture makes one “elitist” and “pretentious.” Meanwhile the real “elites” are having a field day mining “pop culture” and “low culture” to advance their own careers.

But you’ve also come off as a bit of a farce – an old guard. Your pure standard for a radical aesthetics as the way to save American poetry, and your antagonism toward anything “other” than the dominant culture, frankly, scares me.


You’re a cool dude and you know a lot. Thanks for teaching me about all these obscure movements. But there’s one thing you didn’t sort out. Marj said “A + B ≠ Hybrid.” That is, borrowing one element from the beat poets and another from Flarf does not make anything new. Just because you take 2, 3, or 100 different things and put them together, does not “make it new.” So your “gray area,” so what? How does it foster the new radical, or does that even matter? If innovations are conservative, are they still innovations? Is (aesthetic) radicalism dead?

You know this is the danger of being all things “gray” – liberals, Democrats, moderates, academics, ambivalents, ambiguities, flip-floppers etc. At least Marj knows what she wants.

* After the Conceptual movement in visual art, associated with the avant-garde and performative art that emphasizes the idea over craft, dematerialization, rejection of art as (commodity) object; commonly: art you don’t understand unless you went to art school.

† Perloff’s term for prosy poetry characterized by (1) a high degree of craft, (2) irregular lines of free verse adhering to a traditional form, and (3) the reaching of a small emotional or spiritual epiphany. Usually triggered by memory or a personal experience; sometimes accompanied for kicks by very graphic imagery. Usually crowd-pleasing, award-winning, and appearing-in-The-New-Yorker.

∆ In the canonic words of Modernist poet Ezra Pound


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s